In anticipation of the “World Day of Prayer for Vocations” on May 7, a friar recounts his vocation story and shares advice with people who are trying to discern where God is calling them.
Just two weeks ago, the friars here at St. Anthony Shrine and Ministry Center in Boston hosted a “Come and See Vocation Discernment Retreat” for six men who have been thinking about joining the Franciscans. It was a terrific opportunity for these men to “come and see” – to spend the weekend living in our 11-story friary-ministry center in Downtown Crossing.
During the retreat, the men had the opportunity to pray with us, chat with us at meals and other times, and listen to talks given by a handful of friars who shared stories of their vocational journeys to and with the Franciscans. The men were also able to hear about the more than 30 outreach ministries that take place at the Shrine from our partners-in-ministry on staff, and to tour the building to see where those ministries happen. For me, this retreat brought back memories of my own journey to the friars that began more than 30 years ago.
Recognizing the Call
I became a Catholic while I was in law school. I grew up in Millville, N.J., and was raised in the Methodist Church. At some point, I decided to leave that tradition and become a Roman Catholic. I was attracted to a faith community that had someone who spoke on its behalf – the pope – and a faith community that acknowledged that there are people among us who live exemplary lives and are later recognized as saints. I felt that the Roman Catholic Church “put its money where its mouth was” in regards to evangelization around the world – people were offered health care, education, and compassionate care regardless of whether they were Catholic.
After law school, I worked as an attorney in southern New Jersey in Camden County. I attended a local Catholic church and, over the course of a few years, began to find myself becoming more and more involved in parish activities. From teaching CCD classes to eighth graders and singing in the choir to becoming a cantor at Masses and joining a faith sharing group, I was involved several nights a week in a parish activity, along with attending daily Mass. Finally, dimly, the “light bulb” came on in my head, with a tiny voice that said, “Maybe this is where you are being called to spend your life on a full-time basis.”
Consequently, I spoke with the parochial vicar in the parish about becoming a priest. He referred me to the local diocesan vocation director. We met and I began the discernment process. My friend, the parochial vicar, also happened to be a Secular Franciscan – something that diocesan priests can do. He suggested I look into the Franciscans, since the emphasis was on living in and being committed to a community, rather than the individualized approach of the diocesan clergy.
Finding a Sense of ‘Home’
I eventually saw an advertisement for a Franciscan community in the local diocesan newspaper, cut it out, and mailed in my contact information. In return, I received information about St. Francis of Assisi and the life and ministry of these Franciscan friars who belonged to the Holy Name of Jesus Province and whose headquarters were in New York City. These same men also staffed a parish in Camden, N.J., not far from where I lived.
I received a phone call after sending in my preliminary information sheet to the HNP Vocation Office. The vocation directors at the time were Kevin Cronin, OFM, and Ron Pecci, OFM. Ron called and arranged to meet me at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Camden.
I met Ron at the parish friary and had a good introductory meeting with him, followed by dinner with the other friars who were living there. I remember feeling a sense of being “at home” – that even though I had just met these men, there was something ordinary, welcoming, and “at ease” about them that made me feel like I was in the right place.
Ron invited me to come to a “Live-In Weekend” in the Bronx, N.Y., where the postulants lived with men working in the parish there. I told Ron that although I was impressed with the the friars, I had just begun looking at religious communities and I thought maybe I should look into some other groups as well.
“Okay,” he said, before inviting me to the Bronx for a “Not-Ready-for-Live-in Weekend.” The focus was different in that the men who attended would be taken on a tour of various ministries in the metropolitan New York City area to meet different friars and to see the various types of work being done by them. I decided to go and see what that looked like.
That weekend, we gathered at Holy Cross Friary in the Soundview section of the Bronx and met the friars and postulants who lived there. Among the men in the postulant program was Basil Valente, OFM, who is currently our vocation director. During that weekend, we visited friars in a northern New Jersey parish, friars who worked at residences for the disabled in Manhattan, and friars who worked at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Midtown Manhattan – the “mother church” of our Province.
What struck me about meeting all of these friars was that in each location, with every meeting we had, I felt “at home” with them – the same feeling I had in Camden the first night I met with Ron. So, it was not surprising that, at the end of the weekend, when Ron asked me if I was ready to come to a “Live-in Weekend” – to be interviewed to potentially be invited to apply to join the friars – I wholeheartedly said, “yes”. He replied, “I thought that you were ready – you’ve been smiling the whole weekend.”
Having Courage to Grow in Faith
And, “the rest is history”– so they say. I thought about the trepidation of my drive to the Bronx for that “Live-in Weekend” more than 30 years ago, thinking about taking that “leap of faith” – leaving my job as an attorney, putting my things in storage at my brother’s and changing my mailing address – and trusting that God would take care of me.
Over the years that feeling of being “at home” has remained and grown stronger. So, my advice to the six men who joined us for the vocation retreat was to “trust your gut” – to listen to that feeling and maybe that quiet whispering that says, “You’re home.” In fact, one of the men said that very thing in a casual conversation – that he had some hesitancy about coming to Boston – not sure of what to expect – but after arriving, he encountered and found that sense of being “at home.”
For me, this is the essence of our faith. Whether our vocation is to be a consecrated member of a religious community, a lay person who lives in a committed relationship with a life partner, or a person who is still searching for a way to identify their calling – we all are called by our God. God is the first mover, the initiator of our life. We are constantly challenged to learn how to hear and feel that presence in and around us, and then we are challenged to take those “leaps of faith” and join in that dance with God and God’s Spirit.
Sometimes it’s hard for us to learn to follow and not lead in the dance. But learning to take deep breaths and to surrender to the Spirit is what comes from spending daily time with God and the Spirit in prayer, meditation and spiritual practices. One of the things I’ve discovered – especially over the last several years – is the invaluable help a spiritual director can have in accompanying me – and all of us – on our journey. There’s nothing like having your own cheering section as you take those leaps of faith.
This Sunday, when we celebrate and offer our prayers for vocations, let us include in those prayers all people – women and men beginning to explore the possibility of joining religious communities, and men and women discerning their places in the world where they, too, are being called to live out their vocations as people engaged in a dynamic dance of love with their God. All of us have “vocations” – may we live them fully embodied and make those occasional “leaps of faith” that challenge us to trust in God’s plan for us and for our world.
— Fr. Barry is associate executive director of St. Anthony Shrine in Boston, and a regional vocation director for the Franciscan Vocation Ministry of Holy Name Province.
Editor’s note: Is God calling you or someone you know to become a Franciscan? Contact our vocation office and let us assist you in your discernment process.
- “’Brokenness’ Celebrated at Florida Vocation Retreat” – Feb. 1, 2017, HNP Today
- “Love, Mercy Guide Vocation Retreat in Boston” – Dec. 22, 2015, HNP Today
- “Jubilarian Profile: Barry Langley Marks 25 Years as a Friar” – July 17, 2013, HNP Today